You’ve probably noticed it on government billboards, posters, and emblazoned on building entrances: a pair of hands clasped around a pike topped by a mysterious red form that, from a distance, resembles an upside-down plunger or a psychedelic mushroom, all encircled with ivy, tied up neatly with a turquoise and white bow and imposed over a rising Sun of May.
You probably didn’t know, however, that this is Argentina’s Coat of Arms, a curious ensemble of images and symbols purportedly representing the essence of a nation. The handshake is simple enough to analyse: Handshake = Unity. And it makes sense that it is presided over by the Sun of May, an icon used to commemorate Argentina’s independence from Spain: Handshake + Sun = Unity + Freedom. But the meaning of the rest isn’t so immediately apparent.
On closer observation, it becomes clear that the ‘mushroom/plunger’ is in fact a diminutive red ski cap befitting an elf, but this does little to unlock the meaning of the icon, let alone explain why it is being hoisted on a pike.
The origins of this confounding image are equally mysterious. Originally introduced in 1813 as the seal of the General Constituent Assembly, the design was amended several times before it was re-established in its original form in 1944. The shield’s masterminds are unknown, though figures such as Argentine revolutionary Bernardo de Monteagudo, engraver Juan de Dios Rivera, and Peruvian artist Antonio Isidro de Castro, who was commissioned by President Bernardo Rivadavia, are often credited.
With the shield’s architects no longer alive to elucidate their creation, my own attempts to interpret its meaning were skewed by images of elves in red hats.
Of course, none of this what the designers of the shield intended. After some secondary research, I discovered that the red hat is not for skiers or elves, but a Phrygian cap – one worn by emancipated slaves in Ancient Rome that was popularised by the French Revolutionaries and has since come to connote the pursuit of liberty. The clasped hands are meant to symbolise the unity of Argentina’s provinces and the pike which they hold represents their willingness to defend their freedom and independence. The ivy laurel is an allusion to ancient Greece and symbolizes triumph and glory, while the rising sun of May is supposed to symbolize Argentina’s promise.
If you were already familiar with this explanation, Phrygian caps off to you! Though the real meaning is slightly less colourful than I had hoped and envisioned, I’m glad to have the mystery solved, and especially relieved that the Argentine Coat of Arms doesn’t actually allude to clogged toilets.